Once again India has been bashed about by international surveys creating a dismal image of the country. There was the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights report on Kashmir with the standard outraged response from the head of the Army General Bipin Rawat. He described the report as “fallacious, tendentious, and motivated ….. overtly prejudicial and seeks to build a false narrative.” I say standard because the General’s outrage is typical of the frenzied, unconvincing, reaction of Indian officials whenever India receives bad publicity. At the time of writing, the government is considering its reply to the Thomson-Reuters survey maintaining that India is the most dangerous place for women. It’s to be hoped they do better than the standard hyperbole.
I have often felt the international portrayal of India has been unduly negative. I think back for instance, to the image of India as irredeemably poverty-stricken and bound by caste widespread in the 60s and the 70s. Even now it’s seriously suggested that India has no right to a space programme because of its poverty. But I do feel India does itself no good by emotional reactions. Rather it should make sure it has a convincing answer to the criticism.
Take the case of bonded or forced labour which India is often criticised for. Brick manufacturing is well known for employing forced labour. Very recently, I visited a Haryana brick kiln. It was about eight thirty at night. The workers gathered round me but two small girls, they can’t have been more than ten, continued making bricks. I was told that there were some 35 families working in the kiln, employed by the same contractor and paid by the number of bricks they made, giving them an incentive to ensure all family members, including children, worked. They were forced to continue working in the kiln because they didn’t receive their payment until the end of the season. Then the contractor took some said 10 per cent of their earnings, others said 20. The contractor also subtracted the money families had received for buying rations while they were in the kiln. They didn’t have any ration cards, so had to pay the market price for their food.”The result”, one woman said, “is that sometimes we end up with nothing.” Another added, “especially if we have borrowed money from the contractor”. They had no usable toilets and so defecated in fields where they were in danger of being chased away by farmers. The families came from Nawada District in Bihar. They were forced to migrate as there was no work there.
When international human rights and other organisations criticise India, they are often told to mind their own business because India has comprehensive legislation covering the issues they highlight. In the case of the brick kiln workers under The Interstate Migrant Workmen Regulations of Employment and Conditions of Service Act and The Unorganized Workers Social Security Act, contractors are bound to pay workers regularly and at official rates, to provide “suitable residential accommodation” instead of the hovels that the brick kiln workers were living in, and protective clothing with “suitable conditions of work” .
The workers suffer from dust and smoke pollution, although it has to be said that the government has recently forced kilns to install a technology which reduces pollution from their chimneys. The acts provide for government inspectors to ensure that the provisions are being complied with, but the workers said they hadn’t seen an inspector.
My visit to the brick kiln made me wonder why, rather than reacting to international criticism in a manner which convinces no one, India doesn’t avoid criticism by enforcing its legislation protecting vulnerable citizens.